by Wissam Nasrallah
How can people who appear to be so spiritual and whom God seems to be using to draw people to Himself also be deeply involved in willful sinning? In case you were wondering who these people are; they are you and me. This is made possible by the widespread practice of living a double life and the pervasiveness of cultures of unaccountability.
Ravi Zacharias’ name has been added to a long list of fallen influential Evangelical leaders. I’ve never been a fan of the Evangelical celebrity culture, but I was a fan of Ravi’s intellectual prowess. The revelations about his sexual and financial misconducts affected me very deeply. I, like many others, was fooled and deceived. But this scandal is not about me. Unlike many of his victims and those who knew him personally, I will eventually get over it and life will go on…until the next scandal.
While scandals involving celebrity pastors and preachers make the news every now and then, sexual misconduct among clergy and ministers seems to be a chronic problem. But let us not be deceived, sexual misconduct is only the most visible part of the trinity of “sex, money, and power.” This trio can include misuse of ministry funds, abuse of power, misrepresentation, bullying and manipulation of people, spiritual narcissism, and the desire for self-promotion and aggrandizement.
These all-too-common scandals are not only defaming the name of Christ, they are also undermining the witness of the Gospel by misleading many souls and bringing shame on those who bear the name of Christ. (Read Walid Zailaa’s blog to learn how not to deal with these problems).
In this blog however, we will try to understand how people who appear to be so spiritual and are sometimes used as an instrument for God to draw people to Himself, can also be deeply involved in willful sinning. In case you were wondering who these people are; they are you and me. This is made possible by the widespread practice of living a double life and the pervasiveness of cultures of unaccountability.
The first widespread problem is “compartmentalization.” According to the American Psychological Association (APA), compartmentalization is a “defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict or to be incompatible are isolated from each other in separate and apparently impermeable psychic compartments.” Compartmentalization is a double-edged sword. It can be a good thing when it enables us to take our minds off stressful things but becomes dangerous if it helps us cope with moral hypocrisy by keeping our secretive life separate from our non-secretive life. We can be sincerely committed to God and yet at the same time sin uninhibitedly.
This is not the result of a one-time decision at a specific point in time: it is a series of small “God is not that narrow-minded” or “I deserve this” types of decisions. With time, these eggs eventually hatch and bring about an internal conflict between our behavior and our faith. We therefore either trivialize or normalize the sins, which eventually leads to spiritual numbness and lukewarmness OR we start compartmentalizing, leading a double life in order to maintain the best of both worlds.
When sin-driven compartmentalization occurs, ministry becomes a tool for self-justification especially when we are skilled at what we do and invest so much time and energy in it. We think that the positive impact we are making for the Kingdom justifies or counterbalances the “perks” we granted ourselves along the way. In a sense, we tell ourselves, “I deserve this small reward.” And the more time goes by and the more we get away with it, the more established the compartments become and the more skilled we become at deceiving ourselves and others.
But we forget that we cannot remove salt by adding sugar. Good ministry performance cannot absolve us of our sins. The Bible repeatedly teaches us that just because someone is anointed by God or has a special gifting does not mean they are right with God and that their path will not end in destruction. We can deceive ourselves and hundreds of other people, but we will never be able to deceive God: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7: -23). In His infinite wisdom, He can still use the gifts he bestowed upon us for His glory while rejecting us as was the case with Saul, Samson and many others.
What was Ravi Zacharias thinking? What are we thinking? That we will simply get away with it? Our problem is that we do not think that far ahead and forget that “sin will take [us] further than [we] meant to go, keep [us] longer than [we] meant to stay, and cost [us] more than [we] ever meant to pay…” a quote ironically attributed to Ravi Zacharias.
The question we should therefore be asking ourselves is whether the Gospel is really transforming our character into Christlikeness in a visible and tangible manner. Or is the transformation only apparent in our speech and knowledge of spiritual matters?
This brings me to the second point of this blog: what kind of organizational culture allowed Ravi Zacharias, and might allow us, to deceive so many people for so long? It is a culture that puts charisma over character and delivering results above accountability (In the case of Ravi Zacharias, read David French’s report). It is a culture that turns pastors and leaders into untouchable celebrities. In the Middle East, tribal mentality and family ties play a significant role in turning the pastor into the head of the tribe, which is a different type of celebrity culture, but that deserves a blog by itself.
These different models put leaders on a pedestal and rob them of the gift of vulnerability, isolating them from acknowledging and seeking help in the face of personal struggles. In a sense, accountability does not work without vulnerability.
In the absence of a robust culture of accountability, there exists a potential risk of falling into what political science calls the “autocratic bargain.” In a church context, this would mean a tacit agreement between a pastor and the congregation where the pastor does not share the decision-making in exchange for him not meddling in the private lives of church members as long as they conform to accepted social norms on Sundays. Unaccountability therefore works both ways. This can be reinforced by a weak understanding of the role of elders in the church, with the pastor making most of the decisions and carrying most of the burden of spiritual responsibility (should we consider moving toward a movemental ecclesiology model?).
Transparency is a frightening but necessary thing, especially when we have a visible role. But the reality is that the more success we enjoy, the more vulnerable to temptations we become. And scripture warns us that the “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Let us heed the call that “everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48), for “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Wissam is Chief Operations Officer at LSESD and enjoys writing at the intersection of faith, politics and economics.